Localites and Early Modern Britain
This article was originally published in the journal Research and Review Series, no. 7.
In early modem England local identity often was more important than national identity, and "country" as often meant one's native shire as one's nation state. In 1710, a young German gentleman visited London and kept a diary in which he noted unique British customs. He wrote at length about a cockfight he witnessed. He learned that "cocks from the same neighbourhood or county do not willingly attack each other." English cocks had a county identity or mentalite. While the sociobiological truth of this animal behavior might be doubted, the English believed it to be true. Cockfights took place mainly between the prize cocks of country squires from neighboring shires. A 1685 advertisement gave advance notice of "a great Match of Cocking, between Leicestershire and Oxfordshire Gentlemen ... , in Leicester." In 1710, Surrey and Hampshire gentlemen fought a cock match after May horse races, while, after a Peterborough horse race in July,there were to be several days of cock-fighting pitting "the Gentlemen of the Counties of Northampton and Lincolnshire against the Gentlemen of the County of Huntington, and Isle of Ely and Cambridge." Cocking and horse racing were part of a gentry "theatre of honour" and of provincial reciprocity and exchange networks. And cocking, at least, reinforced county not national identity.